Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


U.S. Aerospace Programs Should Help, Not Hinder Asian Allies

President Biden’s recent tour of Asia did not include stops in either China or Taiwan, but those two nations still made global headlines amidst increasing tensions. When asked at a press conference in Tokyo if the United States would intervene militarily should China invade Taiwan, Biden replied, “Yes. That’s a commitment we made.”

White House aides quickly walked back that response while Biden sought to clarify his comment the next day, noting “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan.

That well-publicized episode prompted a personal recollection of China “playing the ‘strategic ambiguity’ card” in an “at-home visit” during my time representing Arizona in the U.S. Congress.

Chinese officials from the Los Angeles Consulate visited Phoenix in 1999, insisting “normal trade relations” with China would help both our nations. Skeptically, I inquired about remarks by Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, then the deputy chief of China’s general staff, who reportedly said about Americans, “…you care a lot more about Los Angeles than Taipei.” The senior consular official said that Xiong was misquoted and didn’t make a nuclear threat. I seriously doubted it. So, when the U.S. House considered normalizing trade relations with China in May 2000, I voted no.

Since then, China has grown significantly stronger, more aggressive, and less circumspect in its conduct, making an eventual military invasion of Taiwan even more likely.

Should that happen, with the United States and China engaging militarily, it’s hard to imagine that our Pacific allies wouldn’t also get involved. After all, we have nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea and about 55,000 in Japan.

Given that sobering scenario, we must clarify and properly administer our aerospace programs to fully support our Pacific allies.

Yet troubling developments regarding the world’s top stealth fighter jet, the F-35, are headed in the opposite direction.

Policymakers within the Pentagon are aiming to “modernize” the F-35 with a completely new engine called the Adaptive Engine Transition Program, or AETP. To be clear, what is being proposed and codified in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is not a basic upgrade; it is instead a radical retrofit, calling for the complete replacement of the aircraft’s propulsion system beginning in 2027.

It is the wrong proposal at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

And it’s been tried before.

Back in 2011, Tea Party-inspired Republicans crossed the aisle to join Democrats in Congress to cut $450 million from the defense budget meant for replacing the F-35’s engines with an entirely new system. At the time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly made the program one of his top targets, calling it “unnecessary and extravagant.”

But some Pentagon leaders are trying again. At a Senate hearing last month, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, an AETP advocate, acknowledged the challenges by noting, “…there’s a significant cost associated with a brand new engine” and that “each of the services and each of our partners are in a different situation with regard to the economics of doing that and the performance requirements.”

It’s hard to see how “different situations” align with the “integrated deterrence” pillar of the National Defense Strategy now promoted by the Pentagon. Addressing that concept, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remarked earlier this year, “but most important, [integrated deterrence means] using the capability and capacity that’s resident in our partners and allies.” Sorry, but burdening them with multiple supply and logistics chains for F-35 engines certainly won’t help.

At a time when Russia is already fighting a savage war against Ukraine, and with a similar scenario perhaps unfolding between China and Taiwan, changing F-35 engines for a new system is dangerous.

The F-35 is American-made, but it is internationally flown by 14 countries through outright partnerships and the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Adding new propulsion systems for newer jets would make maintenance more complex, time-consuming, and expensive.

Think of the supply chain difficulties American consumers currently confront in our peacetime economy; we cannot afford even worse logistical difficulties for warfighters as conflict looms. While product shortages bring inconvenience, increased prices, and emotional agitation to shoppers, similar challenges for the F-35 could prove catastrophic in wartime.

Even in the absence of conflict, “the long view,” long championed by certain legislative leaders on Capitol Hill, lends itself to rejecting major changes in the F-35. As it stands now, the stealth fighter is about midway through a “life expectancy” of 30 years. American tax dollars would be spent more wisely on research and development for the coming sixth generation of fighter aircraft rather than revamping a fifth-generation model.

Clausewitz famously observed that “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.” Should America and its allies find themselves engaged militarily, there will be no place for continued ambiguity or uncertainty in the maintenance of the F-35.